Austria’s presidential elections are typically sedate, with candidates vying for a mostly ceremonial post. But this year much of the world is watching the vote due to Norbert Hofer, a 45-year-old former aeronautical engineer and leader of the anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic Freedom Party.
Hofer has a chance to become the EU’s first far-right head of state after a run-off Sunday against his opponent Alexander van der Bellen, a 72-year-old economist and former leader of the left-wing Green Party. The two men already faced in a run-off last May, which Van der Bellen won by just 31,000 votes, but the constitutional court annulled the results because of irregularities in the absentee vote count and ordered a rerun for October.
That was in turn postponed until December because of faulty glue on absentee-vote envelopes.
After a year of campaigning, the candidates and the public are exhausted, but the stakes have seldom been higher. In the wake of the Brexit vote in Britain and Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the United States, the election of a far-right politician in the heart of Europe would send further shockwaves throughout an already tense continent.
Hofer is a top official in the Austrian Freedom Party, which was founded after World War II largely as a political home for former Nazis. Today, the party espouses an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and Eurosceptic program. Buoyed by last year’s refugee crisis and growing frustration with the mainstream Social Democratic and Conservative parties that have governed Austria for decades, the Freedom Party is ahead in the polls and hopes to form a government after the next parliamentary election, which could come as early as next year. A victory for Hofer could further boost its standing and fortunes.
Van der Bellen and his supporters claim that Hofer would lead Austria out of the European Union, which Hofer denies. But he is close to French far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, an avowed EU foe, and has called for an exit referendum if the EU becomes more centralized.
Hofer and his party chairman, Heinz-Christian Strache, draw inspiration from Trump’s stunning rise to the White House, echoing the president-elect’s claims of fighting against a dominant liberal elite in the name of common people. The Austrians call for closing the country’s borders to refugees and a reduction in the number of job seekers from other EU countries.
Last year Austria took in 90,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan. It was the third-largest number of refugees accepted in Europe, behind only Germany and Sweden. Austria also employs tens of thousands of workers from neighboring countries.
The economy is still doing well and standards of living are high, but unemployment has been on the rise and growth is weaker than in Germany and many other EU countries. Still, foreign observers regularly voice their surprise that such a wealthy and peaceful country would fall for populism.
The campaign has become increasingly bitter in its closing weeks. In a final TV debate on Thursday, Hofer accused Van der Bellen of espionage in the 1980s and pushed back on claims that he was a Nazi.
Most business heads, academics, and political leaders support Van der Bellen, but Hofer has greater appeal in the countryside and among less-educated voters. He is adept with populist rhetoric, but comes across as soft-spoken and smooth.
The federal president usually does not interfere in day-to-day governmental affairs, but Hofer has threatened to dismiss the government if he strongly disagrees with its policies, which is within his constitutional rights. This would be a major challenge to Chancellor Christian Kern, an eloquent Social Democrat who took over the leadership of his party and the government in May.
Kern’s party has long been opposed to forming a coalition with the Freedom Party but is now beginning to open itself up to this option. The coalition with the conservative People’s Party has been weakened by constant bickering, which further boosts the popularity of Hofer’s populist opposition.